Are you are a manager or leader of an intercultural team? Or do you work within an intercultural company? If so, are you experiencing intercultural communication problems? Take a look at the photo — is that how you try to solve your intercultural communication problems?
Accustomed as we are, in the West at least, to cause and effect thinking, we are convinced that surely there must be a formula somewhere that we haven’t found yet. However, the flaw in this logic is that this is the wrong way to look at such problems. Intercultural communication problems are not a puzzle to be solved. That is why I prefer to use the metaphor of a dance when discussing these, this is closer to what happens when we communicate.
In a dance, such as a tango or waltz, everyone knows the basic steps. Then the dance changes slightly, according to who we dance with. This forces both partners to adapt. We prefer some partners to others. And we dance better with some people and worse with others. We also enjoy ourselves more with particular partners. There is always someone who leads and someone who follows; both roles are important and it is clear which is which in an actual dance.
The practice of speaking and listening within intercultural business contexts is fundamentally the same as in this dance example. All of us know the dance steps of requests, offers, promises, declarations and opinions, which are the five main dance steps of human communication. And all of us, using English as a second language in intercultural business contexts, know the basic vocabulary and grammar for those speech acts. We also have varying amounts of the vocabulary required to dance with others when writing emails and reports, or when speaking in meetings, on the phone or during presentations. We also know how to do the dance of ‘small talk’ at social events, such as coffee breaks and lunch.
As with with actual dancing, you dance differently with everyone. You prefer some intercultural dance partners over others. Although you’re not always sure who is leading or following and you may have opinions about which is more important. This is similar in many ways to the dance you do with people from your own culture. The difference is that your own dance is more familiar, and speaking and listening thus feels easier with people from your own culture.
When you label something as an intercultural communication problem, what do you think you are identifying? It’s useless to look outside yourself or outside the dynamic of who you are dancing with. Instead, rather than complicating things, go back to basics. Look at the dance steps of requests, offers, promises, declarations and opinions. Somewhere, you and the person or people that you are dancing with are out of step at that basic level.
Unfortunately, people typically add layers of complexity to something that is essentially extremely simple: two or more human beings in the dance of coordinating action in the present, which often but not always impacts the future. Within a business context, everyone has an expertise to contribute. It’s that simple.
I’ll provide just a few examples of how we complicate things. For example, we expect things from others that we haven’t clearly asked for and then resent them for not giving them to us. Or we offer things to others that they do not really need or want, and blame them for being ungrateful when they do not value them. Perhaps we believe our ungrounded opinions about everything and everyone, which create as much or more suffering for ourselves as it does for others. We don’t keep our promises and then complain that others don’t trust us. We don’t declare directions for ourselves and others, so we float around directionless, frustrated and unmotivated, and blame others for not leading the way. And when they do lead, we resent being followers. By being unaware of all that we do at the level of language, we lose sight of the basic building blocks of the human communication dance and so we lose our way. It is as if we have forgotten that we actually know how to dance. Often, we don’t even know that we know.
Getting back to the communication basics that all human beings share in common is what my seminars, such as Mastering Intercultural Communication and The Dance of Opinions focus on. As a communication expert working in field of human communication for the past twenty-five years, I am always amazed by this one fact: for a species that lives in language to the degree that we all do, it’s rare that any of us notice or understand the basic building blocks of human communication. So the problem is not ‘out there.’ Instead, the challenge for all of us is to find our way back to a dance that we all know and can share effortlessly, once we get back to basics.
I often say that all of us suffer from intercultural communication blind spots, and it is often like the blind leading the blind. If we can’t see the communication dance, if we can’t see the steps, if we can’t see how we dance or how others dance, what is it that we think we are trying to fix when we try to solve a communication problem? And why do we assume that formulaic thinking will lead to an answer?
Communication skills are often referred to as ‘soft skills.’ I prefer not to use that term because it makes them sound like something that is less rigorous. To go back to the dance metaphor, anyone who has danced any kind of dance knows the physical, emotional and mental rigor it requires. And it is only after you have totally mastered the basic steps that you can fully enjoy the dance and add your own creative flare to it.
The same is true of mastering the human communication dance. Relearning the human communication dance also requires rigor at a lot of levels. I use the verb ‘relearning’ because you already know the dance and simply need to practice the basics again. Once you do, you will be able to dance more harmoniously with an ever widening circle of people, from any culture. You’ll be able to focus on the simplicity and stop complicating things for yourself and others. Indeed, you can very rapidly reach the point where you never again utter the words ‘intercultural communication problem.’ It will be as nonsensical as saying ‘waltz problem’ or ‘tango problem’. I firmly believe that ‘problems out there’ don’t exist in dance and they don’t exist in intercultural communication. So, if you are standing alone and looking outside yourself for solutions, I encourage you to start dancing again.